The Unique Church
Too often, ministers foolishly embrace the ecclesiastical advice of those who know absolutely nothing about the specific arrangement of the local church they pastor. A pastor is animated by an article in which today's latest "church expert" insists that he or she has the corner on what should be done in every church. All the while, he forgets that that those writing such articles often know absolutely nothing about the various personal, cultural, industrial, socio-economic, religious, ethnic or age dynamics represented by the town in which each local church is set. There are a myriad of ways in which unhelpful assessments of the local church occur today--precisely because most people are not taking into account the fact that every local church has its own unique challenges and characteristics.
While all mankind has descended from the same first parents, no one would argue with the fact that each of us has our own unique personality, gifts, struggles, strengths and weaknesses. Parents of multiple children acknowledge how each of their children are perplexingly different from the others. There is commonality among the children of the same parents, to be sure; however, the unique personality of each child--more than the commonalities--is what often draws the attention and focus of parents. This is no less true in the ecclesiastical world than it is in the home. The church (universal) owes her origin to the same God and Savior. However, each local church has its own peculiar strengths and weaknesses.
Many, seeking to address what they believe to be the weaknesses of the church (universal) today, mistakenly treat all (local) churches as if they were monolithic entities. This is no less true of those who talk about what a church should look like with regard to its structure and growth, as it is of those who speak of what it should look like as to its cultural involvement. When we turn to the Scriptures, we find both unity and diversity regarding each local church and the expectations that God has for them. The Scriptures have much to tell us about both the uniformity and the diversity of local church expectations.
In the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3), the Lord Jesus addressed the unique conditions of each of those churches. He didn't treat the seven churches as if they were monolithic entities. Unique strengths and unique weaknesses belonged to each congregation. The cultural dynamics surrounding each local church affected what the Savior addressed to the members of the church. While the same goal is held out to each one, unique warnings, encouragements, threats and promises are given to each church--depending on the specific needs of that distinct fellowship.
The same approach is found in the New Testament letters. The Apostles did not treat every church exactly the same. Some churches were beset by highly nuanced forms of false teaching. Some were in danger of losing the Gospel over tolerating sin in the lives of their members. Some were in need of encouragement because they were suffering persecution for the name of Christ. Some needed to be exhorted to greater generosity.
In the end, Jesus and the Apostles treated local churches according to their particular needs. They take into account the doctrinal, spiritual, moral and cultural distinctions of each church. This becomes the paradigm for those pastors whom God has called to care for the spiritual well-being of a local church. Who knows better what a local church needs than the men appointed by God to care for the flock!
Certainly, there are overarching principles applicable to each local church; but, more harm has been done by those who have sought to critique pastors and congregants they know nothing about. At one and the same time, we need listen to the general principles of Scripture and to the nuances of each distinct local church in Scripture. The best way forward is to remain in the Scripture. God has given us, in His word, everything necessary for life and godliness.
As the men God has appointed to pastor local churches assess the context of their congregations, and allow the Scripture to scrutinize the unique challenges and shortcomings that they face, they will be better able to address the real needs of the local church in a manner suitable to that local congregation. We must resist the temptation to be motivated by the guilt manipulation of those who cherry pick verses out of Scripture in order to fit their agenda. We must guard against welcoming the advice of those who tell everyone what they should be doing in the particular church in which they worship and serve.